I confess, despite its popularity, I’ve never seen the American version of The Office. The reason is this—I’m a huge Ricky Gervais fan. What I appreciate about his comedy is that he’s not afraid of being disliked; indeed, he revels in making his viewers uncomfortable. And within this discomfort is his edgy genius. I could be wrong, but I have a hard time believing that the Steve Carell, who always seems to emanate a certain ineffable sweetness, could ever match Gervais’s appallingly insensitive David Brent or would even try.
Just as Gervais doesn’t seem to care whether he’s considered likeable by his audiences, so too, British leading men also seem less concerned with appearing ‘perfectly’ handsome. I’m willing to bet you won’t see Clive Owen or Daniel Craig become freaks of plastic surgery like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger in a desperate attempt remain box office beefcake. (Though of course, there will always be exceptions; I recently caught sight of Roger Moore in a made-for-TV Hallmark movie and he looks like the crypt-keepers fat-injected, botoxed older brother.)
There is something eminently more interesting about the imperfectly handsome hero. Perhaps its because we imagine we have a better chance of snagging him than we do of someone as eerily ageless and good looking as Tom Cruise? Or maybe it’s because the hero’s physical imperfections seem to be a reflection of the internal flaws that make him vulnerable, appealing, and ultimately worthy of the heroine’s redemptive gift of true love.
These are the men you’d never take home to mother, but you can’t resist taking home…
Jason Isaacs - Public television has recently been running episodes of the detective series, Case Histories, in which he plays a cynical, rule-breaking ex-cop, hired to solve cold cases. He’s a tattooed, chain-smoker, with a receding hairline and a working class accent so thick it’s frequently hard for a Yank like me, to understand. And yet I find myself hanging on his every word. Isaacs has a dark intensity; he plays characters who are trying to do what they think is right, but struggle against inner demons. It’s this intensity that makes him a sexy scene-stealer even when he’s playing the most evil of villains such as the elegantly depraved Lucien Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies or the brutal Tarleton in the abysmal cinematic swamp that was Mel Gibson’s The Patriot.
James Purefoy - Okay, if you know Purefoy, you might be thinking he’s too pretty to be an imperfect hero. Purefoy frequently plays the bad boy, but what is fascinating about his portrayals is his willingness to enthusiastically embrace the most unsavory aspects of the bad boy. His Mark Antony in HBO’s Rome is joyfully rutting, wine-swilling sensualist. While he frequently appears nude and he’s not always what you’d call toned. (Brad Pitt may sport a skeezy beard, bad hair, and prosthetics when he wants to play against pretty, but a real paunch?) Austen fans might recognize Purefoy as the drunken rake Tom in Mansfield Park or the wicked Rawdon Crawley in Vanity Fair. As a decadent British peer reduced to spying for the French, he does the near impossible and steals a scene from Sean Bean in Sharpe’s Sword. (And he seduces Kevin McKidd, another ‘jolie laide’ hero in the 1998 Bedrooms and Hallways.) Purefoy’s characters are lost boys, irreparably damaged and spiraling out of control. At their heart is an innocence and vulnerability that makes the desire to save them irresistible.
Martin Clunes - Heavy-set Clunes, with his liver lips and ears that make Daniel Craig’s seem positively shell-like, may seem like an odd addition to this list. Yet as Doc Martin, a pompous London surgeon forced to give up his successful practice when he develops a blood phobia and to take a job as a general practitioner in an isolated fishing village in Cornwall, he’s oddly and intensely appealing. The village is filled with eccentric characters who are the human equivalent of nails on a blackboard to the misogynistic doctor. Like Hugh Laurie’s House, Doc Martin’s a brilliant man with a damaged childhood who prefers the logic of science to the irrationality of people. The intelligence of both Martin and House, the ferocity with which they guard their hearts, and the depth of the passions they suppress, are what make them so fascinating. (And it’s just such a fascination Eloisa James skillfully explore in her heroine’s quest to break through the protective shell of the guarded hero’s heart in When Beauty Tamed the Beast.)
No one brings the imperfect hero more perfectly to life than Loretta Chase in Lord of Scoundrels. She introduces Sebastian Ballister in the prologue as the answer to his father’s fervent prayers for an heir (in large part because he’s come to despise having sex with his beautiful and unsettlingly passionate Italian wife.) When he got his first look at the infant, though, Lord Dain suspected it was Satan who had answered them. His heir was a wizened olive thing with large black eyes, ill-proportioned limbs, and a grossly oversize nose. It howled incessantly. If he could have denied the thing was his, he would have.
Despised by his father, abandoned by his mother, brutalized by his schoolmates for his hobgoblin-like appearance, there’s no way that Sebastian, who grows into a man “well over six feet and every inch dark and brutally hard” will ever be a perfect hero. But his intensity, vulnerability, intelligence and fiercely guarded heart, make him one of the most wickedly alluring imperfect heroes in romance.
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.